Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Ubiquitous computing and communications and the implications of always on

Posted in business and convergent technologies, social networking and business, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 28, 2010

I have now posted six times in my series Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – Everywhere All the Time on issues stemming from the earthquake and on disaster relief and recovery efforts in Haiti (starting with An Open Letter to UN-GAID Regarding Haiti and its Recent Earthquake Disaster).

In part, this is my seventh in that set as a great deal of the initial impetus for my writing this posting comes from the general public in Haiti as it has responded in the midst of this disaster and as it has reached out to share information and communicate in its aftermath. I also write this posting thinking about some very basic, fundamental principles that underlie the core design and architecture of the Internet per se and that we all tend to take for granted and about their implications.

I want to start here with this later point and basic Internet architecture then go back to the more immediate issue of how that applies to a situation such as we face in Haiti. The Internet design and architecture issue is the basic approach behind packet switching and systems connectivity redundancy.

We all know it and we all take it for granted that the Internet had its origins in the original ARPANET. This was initially designed and built by the US DOD’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a computer networking system that could be flexible and scalable enough to maintain communications in the face of nuclear attack where communications nodes would be expected to go off-line and messages would have to automatically reroute to get to their intended destinations. More than that, these messages had to arrive complete or at least in standardized segments that could be reassembled on the fly by automated processes to complete the original message and with high accuracy.

In this, a major natural disaster is an equivalent to a nuclear attack where critical information processing and communications nodes suddenly go down. Fortunately, we have never had a nuclear war to test the capabilities of the Internet to meet its initial design constraints and challenges, but we have had major natural disasters that do this. And even with both Internet and telephony nodes going down, a surprising amount of direct information coming from the Port au Prince area did start making it out and online, and very rapidly after the initial major shock waves. The communications systems in this area were very seriously degraded and both for coverage areas and for bandwidth where there was any coverage at all. What was left still worked, albeit as a much more limited network and people started sharing via voice Skype and Skype with video as well as with Facebook and Twitter and by other means. In this, images and text and voices coming out where rapidly amplified for reach by rebroadcast to larger networks and initial words and images rapidly reached a global audience.

I have written in this series in earlier Haiti-related postings about the tremendous immediate and early stage need to reestablish effective, fine grained ICT coverage and about efforts to bring in satellite uplink and other communications resources and people to manage them. That was valid and this effort has been very important, but this early information was already getting out, and in many cases answering crucial questions as to the then current situation to help develop a more effective outside response.

Two other significant threat categories come to mind besides natural disasters that would also similarly challenge the Internet and ICT capacity and design in this way:

• A large scale terrorist attack and certainly where a weapon of mass destruction was employed.
• A major attack on the Internet and on communications systems per se, which might be terrorist in nature, or be a government sponsored or supported effort.
• That scenario in turn could either be carried out as an attack in and of itself or simply be a prelude to a more conventional military attack, intended to break down command, control and communications systems as a first step for an invasion.

I really should add a basic third scenario as a special case as it involves an already ongoing threat that plays out every single day, and that has prompted what amounts to an ongoing Internet arms war: spam. Think of the massive flow of spam emails and other unwanted, intrusive, invasive data that goes through the Internet as both a challenge to the integrity of the Internet and as an unwelcome but perhaps effective vaccination against the potential effects of the other threat categories I have already cited.

Spam, as undesirable as it is, does force the ongoing expansion of capacity and flexibility of every part and aspect of the Internet, whether to deal with steady state spam packet volumes, or the threat of more focused denial of service attacks. And this capacity and redundancy in our ICT systems increases the chance that some working parts will stay up and online when a disaster does happen, and even in areas that do not start with highly developed higher capacity ICT systems in place as would be found in the more developed countries.

I write this posting with several basic ideas and issues in mind, including and starting with events that disrupt information flow. I also see this as bringing the details as to the needs for ICT systems development in a country like Haiti more clearly in focus, and both for what is likely to be there before an event like this earthquake and for what is needed in rebuilding after. More than that and overarching both of these issues is the compelling logic of always on and always connected systems where self-recovery and capacity to stay connected, even if at a reduced level is built into the basic structure.

Some of the implications there are a bit unexpected, at least to me, where for example the flow of spam and the threat of more focused events like denial of service attacks have forced us as a society to develop and prepare for major disasters too, for at least staying connected to a limited extent and even in severe emergencies. And I find myself thinking of lone, private individuals in Port au Prince with their handhelds sharing images and words from the rubble and this brings the power and flexibility of this basic design into focus for me, as I feel awe and respect for the people sharing this information with the world.

One Response

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  1. teeth whitening said, on January 29, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    I usually agree with your article content, but in this case I am sorry to say that I do not share your views.

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